Martin made his early reputation as the creator of a gritty British cop show called Z-Cars (which my very British friend Jim Crace tells me is pronounced "Zed Cars," not "Zee Cars), but the only TV writing of his Americans are likely to have seen are Edge of Darkness and Reilly Ace of Spies, both of which played on PBS in the 80s (I think). His screen work may be more familiar: he wrote two films that Americans (of my age, anyway) are likely to remember. One was the original, Michael Caine version of the comic heist film, The Italian Job, which has a well-deserved cult reputation . It's got a very offbeat, loose, late-60s vibe (like, say, Bedazzled, or name-your-favorite-Richard-Lester-film). I first saw iton TV back in the summer of 1974, during my first summer home from college, and the power went off ten minutes before the end of the film (there was a tornado; long story), and while I had a chance to see the famous chase scene in Milan (I think), where tiny European cars chase each other through medieval pedestrian arcades and over rooftops, I didn't see the movie's famously ambiguous ending for years afterwards. It's still a fun movie, and much better than the recent remake.
The other Martin script Americans will know is Kelly's Heroes, which is, of course, a touchstone film for guys my age, a cheerfully cynical heist/World War II comedy, in which a unit of weary American soldiers at the end of the war stage their own private invasion behind enemy lines to "liberate" a cache of German gold from a bank in a French village. I'll even confess to owning the DVD, and I watch it every couple of years or so. It hasn't aged as well as The Italian Job; a lot of what seemed madcap when I was fifteen now just seems labored and phony. The film features a lot of sweaty American character actors who are too old to be playing WWII-era GIs, and a lot of the dialogue sounds like it was written by a non-native speaker of American slang (which is what Martin was, of course). That said, it's a clever idea, and a well-constructed story. If you're willing to put up with Telly Savalas and Don Rickles, the film also stars a steely, young Clint Eastwood as Kelly and Donald Sutherland in full, late 60s antic mode, playing an anachronistically hippie-ish tank commander called Oddball. And it's handsomely made, with some skillfully staged action sequences. Mainly, though, I still love it because it's vastly less sentimental about human nature than the George Clooney Iraq war film (first Iraq war, that is), Three Kings, which is basically a remake of Kelly's Heroes. Three Kings is pretty impressive until the last ten minutes, when it loses its nerve and turns into a third-generation photocopy of Casablanca, whereas Kelly's Heroes flaunts its cynicism to the very end, with its American "heroes" cutting a deal with an SS officer and riding off into the sunset with stolen Nazi gold.
Other reasons to watch it: it's beautifully directed by Martin Campbell (who has gone on to make several James Bond films, including the excellent recent reboot, Casino Royale), and it's shot in that moody, gloomy, claustrophobic, telephoto-lens-heavy style of mid-80s Brit thrillers that I like so much. It also features wonderful performances by a small army of great British character actors (Ian McNeice, John Woodvine, Zoe Wanamaker). Peck himself is magnificent, playing repressed rage in a way that evokes that master of repressed rage, the late, great Patrick McGoohan.
The series also features the best performance of American actor Joe Don Baker's career. If you only know him as a heavy from American films, you're in for a surprise. In Edge of Darkness, he's clearly having the time of his life playing a more-than-half-crazy, golf-obsessed, rogue CIA officer named Darius Jedburgh. In his first scene, he's carrying his golf bag into a luxury hotel suite in London, just back from Nicaragua, and among the drivers and nine-irons is a .50 cal machine gun. He also gets many of Martin's best lines. In the scene where he first meets Craven, the two bond over a Willie Nelson song ("The Time of the Preacher"), and Jedburgh asks Craven if he's ever been to Dallas. When Craven says no, Jedburgh gives a big Texas grin and says, "It's where we shoot our presidents. The Jews got their Calvary, but we've got Dealey Plaza."
More than that, I shouldn't say. After Martin died a few months ago, I dusted off my blurry old VHS copy and watched the series again, and not only does it hold up really well, it seems surprisingly resonant with, um, our current situation. Let's just say that corporate malfeasance, government complicity with same, and imminent environmental disaster never go out of style (not to mention crazy CIA agents). I can't imagine that the Mel Gibson remake will be nearly as good—there's a whole other blog post to be written about how American feature film remakes of good British TV series (State of Play, Traffik) always manage to mute or even eliminate everything that was interesting about the original show—but I am encouraged that the film is being directed by Campbell, who made the original. But in the meantime, go to Amazon or your online retailer of choice, and get the DVD of the original. Jim Bob sez, check it out.
PS: If you can still find it on ABE Books or e-Bay, Faber and Faber published Martin's Edge of Darkness script back around the time the show was on the air. It's well worth reading in its own right.